As alluded to in an earlier post, I recently listened to the audio version of David McCullough’s tale of the digging of the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas. As with the other McCullough book I read about massive engineering (The Great Bridge, about the Brooklyn Bridge), I was amazed at the colorful characters involved. I suppose it’s not so surprising that larger-than-life people would undertake larger-than-life engineering feats, but it’s still edifying to learn about them.
I was most surprised that the book deals so little with the actual construction of the Canal. The first half (gauged by the eight discs that I listened to) is devoted to the French attempt to dig through Panama in the late 1800s. Most notably, Ferdinand De Lesseps, the overarching figure in its financing, design, and construction, imposes his French flair on the scene. De Lesseps commands the Canal project because he was responsible for the Suez Canal some years previously.
The French episode, which ended in financial ruin, is especially distressing because of the extensive loss of life to yellow fever and malaria. Whole families would join the engineers, and one by one, the family members died. McCullough writes that as many as 20,000 men and women died in the service of the French attempt to dig the Canal. Yet, as with the American attempt, many people came willingly to be part of this historic canal project, heedless of the risks ahead of them. I was stunned at the eagerness of people to throw themselves at such a project, with all its dangers and uncertainties.
The second half of the book, then, is the tale of the American Canal through Panama. A great deal of this section discusses the American support of the Panamanian uprising from Colombia, which had been the sovereign of the isthmus of Panama. Also, we learn that there is much back-and-forth about whether to build a sea-level canal or a canal with locks. Turns out, Congress tried to impose the sea-level design in contravention of the chief engineer’s wishes, but Teddy Roosevelt saved the day and backed up the chief engineer. Yet another reason to be skeptical about our fearless leaders on Capitol Hill, I suppose.
Only the eighth disc really deals with the physical construction of the Panama Canal, complete with mudslides, railroad construction, locks, digging, etc. What finally allowed the Americans to achieve what the French could not relates to a few key matters:
- the Americans understood what caused yellow fever (mosquitos) and eradicated it from the canal zone before construction began in earnest.
- the Americans understood that the railroad needed to be used in tandem with the digging, so as to remove the dirt as soon as it was unearthed. This led to great efficiency.
- the technology was finally ripe. McCullough notes toward the end that, at the time and place of the French attempt, it simply wouldn’t have been possible to succeed in Panama (Nicaragua, maybe).
One thing that strikes me about the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal is that these are monuments to our age. They are meant to last for a thousand years, and although they’ve only been up for about a century or so, they should last essentially as they are now. Obviously humans have built monuments to their times that have lasted for ages (the Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, Machu Picchu, various castles and fortresses in Europe), but it’s still amazing to consider that as the engineers went about their designs, they had such longevity in mind. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around such an idea.
I’m onto another David McCullough book on audio, Mornings on Horseback, about Theodore Roosevelt’s family and his upbringing. I love McCullough’s style. He writes with such grasp of his characters, who, despite being real people, have the language (preserved through diaries and letters) and description of fictional protagonists. His style is not laden with jargon — it’s meant for a wider audience than academic history, and it has the rhetorical punch that keeps such a long book going strong. If you haven’t read or listened to one of his books (he also wrote Truman and John Adams), you should!